Planners, inspired by Dutch, now hope to build

Photo provided by Waggonner & Ball Architects.An existing drainage canal in Jefferson Parish
Photo provided by Waggonner & Ball Architects.An existing drainage canal in Jefferson Parish

Ever since the levees failed eight years ago, New Orleans’ intelligentsia has been talking about learning from the Netherlands, a low-lying country that has had to innovate to coexist with the sea that once covered much of it, and still imperils it.

While local leaders have mostly focused on restoring Louisiana’s battered coast and improving the city’s faulty levees, there’s a third, equally important leg to the strategy — managing rainfall better. With a bit of creativity and some money, proponents of a more thoughtful stormwater strategy say, the region could see a host of benefits: reduced flooding, less subsidence, and a more attractive cityscape.

The concept is simple: People around the world love being near the water, so why is New Orleans built to dispose of it as quickly as possible? As architect David Waggonner, the local Pied Piper of the philosophy often shorthanded as “living with water,” puts it: “Water is money. It’s the most valuable thing there is. It’s the reason we’re on this planet.”

To take just one example, the open, concrete-lined drainage canals that crisscross much of Jefferson Parish and parts of the city could be transformed from eyesores into attractive assets, much in the way that San Antonio has turned its once-troublesome river into a draw for tourists, as well as a linear park for residents and habitat for animals.

Now, Waggonner and the other architects of the “Greater New Orleans Water Plan” are hosting a series of four meetings aimed at moving what has to date largely been a theoretical discussion — about rain gardens, porous pavement, “green roofs” and cisterns — into a building program with tangible results.

After the meetings, which are set to conclude Aug. 13, the group, led by Greater New Orleans Inc. and Waggonner’s firm, Waggonner & Ball, hopes to actually carry out a handful of pilot projects. A public release of the plan is scheduled for Sept. 6.

The projects will be subject to a cost-benefit analysis expected to show that the spending was justified, according to Michael Hecht, president of GNO Inc. He said the payoff could come in various forms, ranging from higher property values to reduced flooding damage.

“The whole point is to show a demonstrable ROI (return on investment),” Hecht said. “We want to monetize the impact.”

Once people see the benefits of better water management on a small scale, Hecht hopes, they’ll be ready to talk about a more ambitious vision.

Waggonner sees a future in which taxpayers spend more on a water-management system that reduces or eliminates flooding, and less on insurance.

“We don’t want to send our money to Hartford,” he said. “We need to spend it here. We’ve been spending, but we haven’t been investing. The whole philosophy has to change.”

Waggonner describes the water plan as the outgrowth of “Dutch Dialogues,” a series of conferences organized by his firm and co-sponsored by the Royal Netherlands Embassy and the American Planning Association that aimed to change the way New Orleans thinks about its relationship with water.

The plan was developed using a $2.5 million federal grant administered by GNO Inc.

The plan, limited to the east bank of the Mississippi River, divides St. Bernard, Orleans and Jefferson parishes into four “basins”— essentially, the discrete areas bounded by levees.

The east bank of St. Bernard and the Lower 9th Ward comprise one basin; New Orleans East is another; the rest of New Orleans’ east bank is a third; and the east bank of Jefferson is the fourth.

A meeting will be held in each basin to discuss the proposed projects.

The first meeting, for the St. Bernard/Lower 9th Ward basin, was held Thursday, and about 60 people attended.

The meeting for the New Orleans East basin is set for 5:30 p.m. Monday at the New Orleans East Regional Library, 5641 Read Blvd. The meeting for the rest of the east bank is set for 6 p.m. Aug. 1 at the Xavier Convocation Center Annex, 7800 Washington Blvd. And the final meeting, for Jefferson’s east bank, is set for 6 p.m. Aug. 13 at Lafreniere Park Foundation Center, 3000 Downs Blvd., Metairie.

Among the pilot projects under consideration:

The major question mark over the whole enterprise is money. Some of the strategies can be costly, but Waggonner and Hecht are convinced that the improvements can pay for themselves in the long run while also creating a much more aesthetically pleasing city.

Waggonner and Hecht are exploring various funding mechanisms. For instance, the Canal Street Canal is affordable enough that the parish could pay for it. They’re hoping private investors might partner with the government to realize redevelopment schemes organized around attractive water-storage features they’ve sketched in New Orleans East and St. Bernard Parish.

Other ideas — like the floating streets and a plan to reduce flooding in Elmwood by reducing the paved area — could be financed by some combination of government spending and perhaps a self-assessed tax supported by residents and businesses.

FEMA hazard mitigation grants are another potential source of money. and there could be help coming from foundations as well.

The Rockefeller Foundation in May announced it had selected New Orleans among eight cities that will share in a grant aimed at creating “resilient urban stormwater infrastructure systems” through public-private partnerships. Largely, that means reducing stormwater runoff through many of the strategies the water plan Waggonner’s firm and its international team has helped devise.

“Rockefeller tells us we’re far ahead of the others,” Waggonner said.

GNO Inc. is studying best practices from other cities, Philadelphia and Omaha in particular. In the long run, Waggonner believes, it’s going to take serious public investment — perhaps coming from a drainage fee the Sewerage & Water Board is contemplating — to reimagine the city’s relationship with water. But before that will happen, people need to be shown that it’s worth the money, he said.

“Ultimately, it’s a question of where do we want to put our money?” Waggonner said. “Do we want to invest in our place, or do we want to invest in a fund elsewhere? I think we need to invest in ourselves.”